Monday, September 1, 2014

The Rough Riders by Theodore Roosevelt

The Rough Riders is Theodore Roosevelt’s best known book and by his own admission the event it recounts was a defining moment in his life. Published in 1899 just a year after the events took place, Roosevelt relied on his own on-the-scene handwritten notes to reconstruct his participation in the Spanish-American War of 1898. The book serves as a first-hand historical document containing voluminous details pertaining to Roosevelt’s connections and governmental placement and maneuvering. Modern readers sometimes criticize these points as being dry, but I admire the fact that Roosevelt documented as much as possible. While the first two chapters may appear cumbersome today, they should be viewed as a peek into history. Interestingly enough, what is lacking is any in-depth analysis as to the causes of the war; nor will you find any debates as to the war’s justification. Modern historians can provide all that type of exposition for those looking for it. Roosevelt’s attitude is made clear at the onset: “...from the beginning I had determined that, if a war came, somehow or other, I was going to the front.” That statement alone speaks volumes about Roosevelt. The Rough Riders themselves were the first United States Volunteer Cavalry; created in San Antonio and comprised of (in Roosevelt’s words): “All-Easterners and Westerners, Northerners and Southerners, officers and men, cowboys and college graduates, wherever they came from, and whatever their social position – possessed in common the traits of hardihood and a thirst for adventure. They were to a man born adventurers, in the old sense of the word.” Throughout the book Roosevelt consistently gives praise to the men that fought beside him. Notable are his comments about Bucky O’Neill, the legendary cowboy from Tombstone who had faced many adversaries and who knew Wyatt Earp and his brothers. Chapters Three (General Young’s Fight at Las Guasimas) and Four (The Cavalry at Santiago) are among the more fascinating first-hand accounts of combat put to paper. The charge up San Juan Hill (actually a sequence of hills) is an iconic American moment, although Roosevelt is too often caricatured as a blustery zealot. Of all the Hollywood depictions, the one I feel is truthful belongs to actor Tom Berenger in the film version directed John Milius (Rough Riders, 1997). It’s a good, solid film but it also takes liberties with some of the historical facts. All the same, I recommend it for those interested in Roosevelt. Berenger’s performance is outstanding. As for the book, it remains in print and from my viewpoint belongs in the category of “couldn’t put it down.” 

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